The path to partnership: Bridging the gender gap in law firms

Guest post from Nikki Edwards, vice-president of the London Solicitors Litigation Association and a partner at Howard Kennedy

Edwards: Transparency mitigate unconscious biases

At the inaugural London Solicitors Litigation Association roundtable, participants from a wide range of roles within the profession discussed the significant gender gap at partner level in law firms and what more can be done to increase the rate of progress.

Two actionable suggestions that stood out from the discussion were greater transparency in the route to partnership and a shift in perceptions surrounding flexible working arrangements.


One important step towards closing the gender gap at partner level is to look at how the journey to partnership is initiated.

Transparency from the outset is vital in promoting equality, as it allows individuals to understand the criteria for advancement and encourages a more meritocratic approach.

Too often, it begins with an informal tap on the shoulder, perpetuating a system that inadvertently favours certain individuals and leaving many feeling they are out of the game by the time they are six or seven years qualified.

It is well known that unconscious biases can lead decision-makers to favour individuals who share similar characteristics or traits. As the existing partner demographic is predominantly male, they will be more inclined to select men for partnership opportunities, inadvertently hindering women’s access to advancement.

A transparent and inclusive processes is essential to mitigate the impact of unconscious biases. The majority of female solicitors who leave the profession or move in-house, do so as mid-level or senior associates. Many choose to step away because partnership seems unobtainable or too difficult to balance with family life.

The lack of a transparent route to partnership and/or the fact they haven’t yet received a tap on the shoulder play into this narrative.

Perhaps the starting point should be a well-defined job description – setting out the skills, responsibilities, and expectations for potential partners – available for all to see and be measured against. Such a document would ideally be created by a diverse group, bringing different perspectives to eliminate unconscious biases and create a fair playing field for all talented juniors.

Flexible working

The rate at which law firms have accepted, and in many cases embraced, remote working since the global pandemic is something which might otherwise have taken decades.

However, when it comes to partner prospects, many have not moved away from the stereotype that those who have flexible working arrangements are less dedicated, ambitious or hard-working than those who don’t.

This perception can discourage talented women from pursuing partnership, as they often feel that flexible working isn’t an option. The general feeling is that, to make partner, they need to sign up to a 24/7 culture and accept that they will need someone else (their partner, family members or paid help) to take primary responsibility for any commitments outside the office.

This narrative is perpetuated by a lack of role models, male and female, who show that it is possible to thrive as a partner, whilst committing time to outside responsibilities and interests.

The desire to work flexibly should not be perceived as a lack of commitment or ambition. Law firms and partners that embrace this way of working will send a message to their juniors that productivity and effectiveness are not confined to traditional office hours and opportunities will be available all hard-working, talented individuals, irrespective of their working pattern.

By creating a transparent pathway for promotion and dismantling the notion that success is solely tied to long hours spent in the office, law firms will undoubtedly make partnership more appealing to talented men and women alike.

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